Some while ago, in the comments to somebody’s post (those of you still in firm possession of your long and short-term memory might recall, but I am not, and don’t), the question of sagging middles came up. Regarding plots, not human waistlines–a topic too deeply tragic for me to attempt.
Plot issues I can deal with…to an extent. But as you read this–if you continue to read it–please bear in mind that I speak only for myself. Every writer has his or her own approach, or maybe several approaches.
A while back I talked about Dickens. One of the many amazing things about his writing is the plotting. As he swiftly matured as a writer, his plotting grew as complex and elegant as a spider’s web. It is amazing enough that he could manage all those threads and the hundreds of characters–but to realize he did this in monthly installments makes me dizzy.
Though I know he didn’t simply sit down and start writing–sailing “into the mist” as some writers do–but had a fairly complex concept of the book as a whole, I cannot at the moment put my hand on anything proving that he wrote a detailed outline, in advance, of the whole book. Yet he did plan ahead and keep track of things as he went along. Most of my editions of his works offer appendices containing his plan for each month’s installment and careful notes about what happens to whom and when and why. Even so, it’s amazing how he could keep track of everything, let alone weave all the parts together.
He–like so many of those authors of the great sprawling novels of the 19thC–has no sagging middles. (Note: Those who find 19th C English novels slow and boring will agree, for to them the whole book sags.) I think this has not simply to do with plotting and planning but with the variety and individuality of the characters, the author’s understanding of those characters, and his or her ability to keep them true to themselves.
My stories are absurdly simple things by comparison: a handful of characters, with the focus almost unrelentingly on hero and heroine, and maybe one subplot.
I wrote my first three books with no outline. Contract negotiations required me to produce one for the fourth. After that, there was no turning back. It was, I found, much easier to write a book when I had some clue in advance what was going to happen.
Some of my outlines are more detailed than others, depending on how many details my imagination can produce so early in the game, before I’ve spent enough time with the characters to understand them. Nonetheless, the beginning, middle, and end is in the outline. The major turning points of the story are there. And the resolution is there. It’s my security blanket.
Most of the time, the little turning points aren’t there. Most of the time, my outline’s notions of how the characters will react to this or that bears no resemblance to how they actually do react once I’m writing the story. This is fine, because in a great many cases–not always, but in the majority–my original view of the characters tends to be vague, flat, and even clichéd. They’re like little stick figures. As I get to know them, and hear their voices, they get little faces and bodies and expressions and gestures and quirks and prejudices, etc. They become three-dimensional, in other words.
What they do, then, will depend not on the outline but on who they’ve turned out to be. I may know they’re headed for one of those major turning points, but I can’t drag them along my route, no matter how brilliant it appeared when I planned it, unless it suits their natures. And it may even turn out that the major turning point is going to be something altogether different. OK, fine. For one thing, this guarantees that I won’t get bored. For another, as long as they’re true to themselves, I think they’ll take care of the plot, and keep the middle as taut as the beginning and end.
This is not the only answer to sagging middles.
One could, of course, put all the smoochy scenes there.